Managing Coronavirus in your community

by Venessa Paech March 9, 2020

The Coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic is dominating the news and breeding anxiety worldwide. It’s no different in Australia, where numbers of fatalities and infected are comparatively low at this stage, but are certain to rise over time.

We’re seeing online communities across the country – regardless of the purpose or core topic of those communities – grappling with a surge of discussion and debate around the virus and its flow-on effects (from panic buying to economic recession).

While it’s important to give your community members space to engage in topics that are meaningful to them, it’s equally important to protect your community from paranoia and unnecessary worry. A healthy culture of civil debate and discussion may descend into unconstructive arguments, conspiracy theories, or worse if unchecked. Your community’s purpose and shared values could be at risk and members can drift away as the experience becomes too unpleasant or unhelpful.

These simple tips can help you quarantine virus discussion in a sensible way.

Align messaging

Make sure your communications and messaging are aligned with any requirements from your brand or organisation on the topic. If your brand has PR, legal or other teams creating official communications and statements about the virus, ensure you’re across these and your front-line community managers, moderators or other staff have access to preferred and approved language and approaches.

If there’s no official messaging, create your own and run it by relevant personnel to guard against any risk or issues. You’re not holding yourself out there as a source of official information on the virus, but you’ll need to make sure leadership is comfortable with the nature of conversations you may become involved in within the community (you can’t afford to totally ignore them).

Manage information responsibly

Maintain a shortlist of official information and resources you can easily link people to and check it regularly as the situation evolves. If you’re informing members, you have a duty of care to do so responsibly and accurately – and correct any misinformation doing the rounds. This Australian Government resource is a great starting point:

While you don’t have to be a Coronavirus news service (particularly if your community has no relationship to the topic), it pays to have key resources on hand and available if needed, as you would likely do for most major risks or issues. You may want to create a pinned post or announcement if the discussion is heating up – with the intention of calming people down, not further inflaming tensions.

Find a proactive angle

Rather than focusing on the more anxiety-inducing elements of the situation, flip your programming and approach to focus on genuinely helpful insights.

Explore content and conversations around working from home (if social isolation is affecting your community), and strategies to help bridge the loneliness or isolation gap.

If people need to laugh and escape their fears, double down on levity and light content to help them relax in a safe space. This has real social value. Share excellent content from other sources that can help keep people informed and quieten nerves.

Add to escalation processes

You should already have a moderation policy, risk mitigation and escalation plan covering common risks and those specific to your community. As the pandemic continues to unfold, and more people are likely to become infected, add a line to this plan covering the virus.

For example, what will you do if someone posts in the community that they believe they’re suffering the symptoms of COVID-19? Or reports that they attended a community event offline and now they’re presenting symptoms? Add resource links, key people to notify and guidance around timelines for action into your existing plans. Hopefully, they’re never activated.

Have a temporary moratorium

Some communities are reporting their daily business is being ‘hijacked’ by discussions about virus and related panic. Remember, it’s within your rights to restrict chatter about COVID-19 for a period of time in your community (or at least, toilet paper!) – and that may be necessary to get things back on track. Fear-mongers or trolls lose their audience and the collective breath lets members reconnect with their primary reason for showing up. 24 hours is proving a workable window for a reboot.

For relevant online communities – such as health and medical communities of practice, peer support communities of vulnerable individuals- it’s important to create space and permission for conversations around an issue like this. But for unrelated communities, even if the issue is in the zeitgeist, you’re not obliged to hold court around it in a way that’s harmful to your core strategic purpose. You don’t have to talk about it, but, be aware it will likely crop up whether you invite it or not.

Be a good community citizen

Last, but not least, be a good community member yourself. Community managers are perfectly placed to step up and demonstrate compassion and connection in a time of crisis. We can do this in our own neighbourhoods and communities offline, and online. Lead by example and look out for each other. It’s a powerful way to combat panic and isolation, and to help curtail virus spread by checking up on those that may be vulnerable, however we realistically can. Lean into community both personally and professionally.

Have a plan and be ready to engage strategically, impactfully and ethically if the topic turns to COVID-19 and related events. Even if this crisis is with us for a while, you’ll develop ways of managing the issue that keep your community purpose on track and don’t betray what you or your community stand for.